Can Apple keep its place in education?

Apple is facing its biggest test in education. What can the company do to fight back against the Chromebook?

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The education market has always been one in which Apple has had a strong presence. Dating back to the era of the Apple II, through the Mac and now into the iPad, the company’s devices have always been contenders in schools and colleges.

More recently the company has faced some major challenges. The rise of the Chromebook – simple, cloud-based and cheap – has given schools and colleges a new alternative to either Apple or Microsoft.

Apple’s recent release of the latest, low-cost 9.7in iPad should be seen in this context. Although commentators have been quick to call the iPad a failure, it’s worth remembering that according to figures from analyst Horace Dediu, it already has an overall installation base of around 300 million – double that of the Mac. Customer satisfaction scores for iPad are, as Apple CEO Tim Cook puts it, “through the roof”, hovering in the high 90s.

And in schools and colleges, the iPad is Apple’s key play against Chromebook. According to a report in The New York Times, the average selling price of a Chromebook into schools in the US is around $300 – which coincidentally happens to be where the latest iPad is priced.

Technology’s place in the classroom

But Apple’s focus in education is about much more than just the hardware. Too many times in the past, schools have “invested in technology” and ended up with devices that sit in the corner, boxed up, because either teachers don’t know what to do with them or they have limited use.

Apple’s focus on education comes from the very top. During his recent visit to the UK, Tim Cook visited Woodberry Down Primary School, which has long used iPads in the classroom.

Interestingly, Cook’s focus was as much on teaching as tech, and he referred to technology in the classroom as a “complement to traditional teaching and not a substitute”.

“Technology has moved on considerably. It gets kids a lot more engaged because they’re living in a digital world. We’re all living in a digital world. This school has done an unbelievable job of integrating it.”

Teaching the teachers

The Apple Teacher Programme aims to ensure this doesn’t happen by helping teachers understand how to integrate technology into the classroom more effectively. Apple Teacher is a self-paced online learning system that encourages teachers to develop their own skills, at their own pace, and it’s designed from the ground up for education.

But does it work? According to Cassey Williams, teacher and digital learning lead at the New Wave Federation: “Apple Teacher enables us to provide a way to train our teachers in a fun, collaborative way. We can use this each academic year as a specific program for newly qualified teachers or teachers new to our institution.”

A place for coding

The place of coding in the classroom is something that’s occasionally controversial. Everyone agrees that understanding the role of code in our everyday lives is important. When everything you work on or play with involves some kind of code, literacy about how that works is as vital as a basic grasp of science.

But all too often, we hear ministers and businesspeople demanding that kids learn to code simply in order to fill a perceived skills gap – as if children will leave school and instantly get jobs as programmers. The fact is that schools are simply not designed to churn out ready-made workers: if they were, they’d be teaching plumbing too.

Apple’s perspective is clearly that kids learning to code is important. To that end, the company has created Swift Playgrounds, an iPad app that takes you from knowing absolutely nothing about code to being able to create pretty complex programmes. Along the way it will teach you all the fundamentals of how code works, including conditionals, loops, and much more.

Apple schools in the future

All of this adds up to a great deal of commitment to education, even for a company with pockets as deep as Apple’s. The key question is whether it can pay off, and whether schools will be persuaded to look away from the Chromebook in favour of the undoubtedly richer environment of the iPad. The release of the lower-cost iPad certainly improves Apple’s chances, as it removes one objection to iPad adoption – price.

In a sense, Chromebook versus iPad represents the clash of two different philosophies, both of which have roots in how children themselves use tech. On the one hand, the current generation of under-16s are the first true cloud natives, never knowing a world without the ability to do everything in a web browser.

On the other hand, they’re also the first generation for whom “there’s an app for that” is true about everything. They’ve grown up with the smartphone – and smartphone-like devices like the iPad – as their main computing device. They expect the richness of the smartphone experience.

Perhaps the biggest danger for Apple, though, is the Google ecosystem behind the Chromebook. Once a child has a Google account, that email address will follow them around for life – something that’s an obvious advantage to Google. And while Apple might still be a presence in the classroom, it’s less likely that parents will be able to afford Apple products at home, where Chromebooks start at the kind of prices most parents can afford.

What’s clear, though, is that Apple is still determined to make sure it has a place in schools. The Chromebook is a threat, but it’s one that the company is determined to meet – and its focus on teaching the teachers and understanding of education may be the ace it needs to win.

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